This week's blog has been penned by Liz Barclay, broadcaster and writer specialising in consumer business issues and personal finance.  She is a communications trainer and coach and works with a variety of businesses in finance, health and public sector as well as other charities.  Liz is also a special advisor on consumer issues to CCA. 

Liz is facilitating the CCA Global Standard© Version 6 Masterclass on 25 November at CCA 20th Annual Convention in Edinburgh.  For more information, contact CCA. 

Peter and Lesley moved to France a few months ago. Just last week they ventured to the local hostelry and ordered 'une biere et un vin rouge s’il vous plait' – in deplorable accents admittedly. The waiter didn’t comprendre’.  Lesley gallantly repeated the order to be told in excellent English, in a tone reverberating with hostility that she ‘should go and learn to speak French’. The same words in a jocular tone might have rung true but they wouldn’t have offended. There will be no more biere or vin rouge from that bar.

It’s a fairly extreme example but it made me think about how important ‘tone’ is when you’re engaging customers.

I don’t want to speak to, much less see, a shop, bank or utility company unless I have to. I’m strictly an online customer by choice. I want to be engaged by a digital process when and where I want. I want a quick, easy, convenient, seamless and intuitive process.  I call it a ‘QECSI’.

However sometimes you don’t have the choice.  

The gasman phoned 10 days ago. I hadn’t paid my bill, should be ashamed and cut off straight away - said the tone.  I don’t know about you but I react to tone. 

I knew this one was in the bag: I’d remarked to him indoors how QECSI the payment process had been. I offered to log into my bank account and supply details. It can take a bit of time to log in and insert memorable information  – especially when the ‘tone’ has you flustered. But ‘well have you got it yet?’ (said several times in the manner of someone who ‘knows’ there are no payment details) became a refrain in the manner of ‘are we there yet’, ‘are we there yet’, ‘are we....... !

By now it was matter of who could muster the chippiest tone. I won. I delivered the devastating news that £177.45 had been transferred to the company’s account on 15th September at 10.27am.

It’s too late to revert to helpful customer agent intent on ‘engaging’ the customer. The relationship is broken, can’t be fixed and divorce is only a matter of time. A lovely man in Rotherham eventually sorted things out although several more ‘tones’ called to point out the error of my ways. My responses just became increasingly belligerent.  Nothing can dissipate the feeling of resentment. It’s all over now.

Even more important in verbal communication than the words is the tone. It can say ‘we value and respect you, want to treat you well and add value to your experience’. It can convey empathy, sympathy, understanding. It can say ‘we’ve got time, are empowered to do what it takes and you have my undivided attention’. It can also convey your company values, principles and ethos. The same words, in a different tone, convey the opposite.

If you want to truly engage with your customers work on the company’s tone of voice. Train your agents in the mysterious art of getting that tone right. The voice is the most valuable and powerful customer engagement tool at your disposal. When your customers prise themselves away from their keyboards use that tool well. Because  I could be the boss’s mother, a mystery shopper, shareholder, even a journalist – but most importantly I’ll probably be a customer.